Quick Take:

Santa Cruz County’s civil grand jury is in focus for Christopher Neely in this edition of In the Public Interest, as he digs into its purpose and hits and misses of past incarnations.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

Depending on whom you ask, the civil grand jury is either a nest for impactful public participation and inquiry into local government, or an underresourced pantomime of public accountability, lacking teeth or firm understanding of the complex local issues it tackles.

Regardless of the side on which you stand, having any opinion at all of the civil grand jury and its work likely puts you in a hyper-engaged minority. Terry Eastman of Ben Lomond, a retired school principal who spent her career in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, learned about the civil grand jury only last year after opening her mailbox to find a postcard seeking applicants. Today, she acts as lead juror on this independent body of 19 strangers — all Santa Cruz County residents — as they finish up their one-year term to investigate local government operations.

Eastman’s jury will publish its anticipated series of investigations on June 30, and a new jury will begin its 2023-24 term on July 1. However, as of this writing, the number of juror applications has underwhelmed the Santa Cruz County Superior Court — the jury’s administrator — enough for the court to extend the application deadline to Monday, May 8.

The authors of California’s constitution, back in 1849, found a civil grand jury’s function crucial enough to include it in the state’s founding documents. Since then, each California county convenes an annual civil grand jury to inquire into, investigate and illuminate shortcomings in local government and school districts. Misconduct among public officials, prison conditions, budgetary waste and general inefficiencies are all fair game.

Sometimes, the jury hits: In 2010, its investigation into the Lompico Water District uncovered embezzlement that led to the arrest of an employee. It’s also been known to miss, sometimes badly. In 2011, it criticized Watsonville for what the jury saw as a questionable fire truck purchase. Then-Watsonville City Manager Carlos Palacios, now chief executive of the county, called the report biased and the state eventually vindicated the purchase.

After a set of screenings and interviews, a panel consisting of a county judge and sitting and former jurors narrow the applicants down to a qualified set of 30 people. A random lottery wheel divides the group into 19 jurors and 11 alternates. The group receives little guidance outside of two days of initial training and orientation from former civil grand jurors on how to approach and organize investigations. Jurors then submit proposals themselves and sort through citizen complaints to decide, through majority vote, which four to eight topics they will investigate. The jury has access to county, city and school-district employees and documents, and is given subpoena power to force any unwilling interviewee into questioning. The jury publishes final reports and offers recommended, though not mandated, solutions and changes.

But can a group of civic aspirants with no particular expertise really be expected to shine a spotlight down bureaucratic crevices and pitch solutions that have a measurable impact?

One local government executive I spoke with on background told me that although some positive work has come out of the civil grand jury, they feel the reports are often “uninformed and hastily put together.” Another former elected official told me that although the civil grand jury can bring attention to important issues, the “actual recommendations are always a joke. If the problems were that easy, people would have just solved them.”

The issues taken on by the civil grand jury are often complex, even for those who have dedicated their lives to solving them. Former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said that although the jury is a positive way to engage the public, “it doesn’t always provide answers to really hard problems.”

An investigation by the 2021-22 civil grand jury titled “Our Water Account is Overdrawn” published 12 findings on the state of the region’s water resilience and three pie-in-the-sky recommendations to improve it, such as building a drought-resilient water system in less than 10 years, and a full wastewater recycle system in less than five. The Soquel Creek Water District’s board of directors did not agree with any of the findings, and, similar to the Santa Cruz City Council, rejected all three recommendations as either unfeasible or unnecessary.

Rich Goldberg, who led the 2020-21 civil grand jury, told me that although each year brings an often entirely new bench of jurors, the annual approach to investigations and final reports are often similar year to year because of the training they receive ahead of time. However, sometimes the personality and creativity of a particular group shines through. The subtitle to Goldberg’s jury’s report, “Justice in the Jail,” which focused on county jail conditions, quoted classic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

The Santa Cruz Main Jail
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

That jury’s report on county jails said it was “essential and in the public interest to improve oversight” of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and county jail by bringing on an inspector general. The board of supervisors and the sheriff’s office at the time each disagreed with that suggestion, saying adequate oversight was already in place. Yet, a year and a half after the civil grand jury published its investigation, the board of supervisors announced it was launching a search for an inspector general.

“We’ve got 19 strangers with no previous experience in what they’re investigating, who are trying to distill these issues and understand them enough to write a report in five months. Are we going to be as much an expert in five months as someone who has spent their life on this? No,” Eastman tells me. “On the other hand, it’s important for a group of citizens to look at something and shine a light, and sometimes that helps the people who have been working on the issue for years. Sometimes you can’t see the forest from the trees.”

During this past year’s investigations, Eastman says she has picked up on what she calls a “civil grand jury effect.” She says that, sometimes, because the civil grand jury decides to look into something, it lights a spark among the city and county staffers, who then come up with a solution to the problem. However, Eastman could not offer any further details on the jury’s agenda this year, as it is forbidden from talking specifics outside of the annual report to be published next month.

To apply to the 2023-24 civil grand jury, follow this link.

Of Note

Pajaro reverberations: The March 11 levee breach in Pajaro is a disaster that appears to be triggering change all the way to the top. In a meeting last Wednesday of the U.S. Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee, Sen. Alex Padilla, of California, questioned Michael L. Connor, assistant secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that oversees projects such as levee repairs. Connor agreed with Padilla that the federal government’s current system of weighing a project’s worth in strictly economic terms was broken — that same metric led to decades of delays in fixing the Pajaro River levee. Connor said the Army Corps of Engineers has pushed forward an initiative to change its system so future projects like the Pajaro levee fix will receive greater priority.

Budget released: Santa Cruz County released its proposed $1.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-24 last week, just ahead of the kickoff of public hearings on Tuesday. Although the county has submitted a balanced budget this year, its financial future appears bleak. If the county were to provide the same level of service, it would run into a $10 million deficit by 2028. Slowing economic growth, the effect on sales tax of changes in retail shopping, and cannabis revenues could be important levers to watch.

The Pride flag flaps at city hall in Scotts Valley in 2022.
The Pride flag flaps at city hall in Scotts Valley in 2022. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Pride politics: Scotts Valley City Council voted unanimously to fly the Pride Flag over city hall for the month of June. The unanimous vote comes only a year after a contentious debate over whether the city should fly the Pride Flag over city hall for the first time. Other more conservative California cities, such as Huntington Beach and Solvang, have made headlines in recent months over their city councils’ decisions to keep the flag off city poles.

Say It Again

“One of the most important things to children is to feel a sense of belonging, and I believe that flying the flag accomplishes that on a level that is of paramount importance.” — Mahina Hoey, Scotts Valley resident, speaking to the Scotts Valley City Council last week ahead of a unanimous vote to fly the Pride Flag over city hall during June.

The Week Ahead

Pogonip pressure: Since the city’s clearout of the Benchlands last fall, Pogonip along Highway 9 has grown into a substantial and unofficial homeless encampment. The City of Santa Cruz plans to clear the camp by the end of May, and on Tuesday, the city council will vote on a contract for trash collection post-clearout.

Branciforte Branch reopens: The reopening of the Branciforte Branch Library at 230 Gault St. on May 13 will give residents a view into how the county has used the $67 million it received from voters in 2016 to remodel its 10 libraries. My colleague Max Chun recently reported on the status of those library upgrades.

Budget beginnings: As I mentioned above, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will kick off public hearings on the fiscal year 2023-24 budget during its regular meeting Tuesday. The county’s elected leaders will host follow-up public hearings on May 30, 31 and June 13.

Weekly News Diet

Local: The well-known local struggle of housing UC Santa Cruz students has caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. (Christine Mai-Duc for the Wall Street Journal)

State: The need for Santa Cruz County jurisdictions to fulfill a state mandate and significantly boost their housing supply has been making headlines across the state and locally lately. Now, a state senate bill could require cities to build permanent supportive housing for their homeless populations. (Marisa Kendall for CalMatters)

National: The housing market in Austin, Texas, has exploded over the past three years as people ditch more expensive cities and find a home in the heart of Texas. This jump in demand has led developers to crank out luxury condos, but this type of supply, it turns out, is not helping housing or rental prices go down. (Prashant Gopal and Patrick Clark for Bloomberg)

One Great Read

“Buzzfeed, Gawker and the Casualties of the Traffic Wars” by Nathan Heller for the New Yorker

The former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct BuzzFeed News, Ben Smith, published a new book chronicling the fast-paced and iconoclastic rise of digital news blogs in the 2000s, and how the race to go viral upended the news world and threw cherished editorial traditions into flux. Nathan Heller, one of the best nonfiction writers working today, reviewed Smith’s book for the New Yorker, adding his own perspective growing up as a journalist as sites like BuzzFeed, Gawker, the Huffington Post, Deadspin and Jezebel built a new model of success that stood more on shares and eyeballs than firm quality. This quote from Heller says it all: “Public attention settled questions of editorial quality: If it was good, you’d see it in the numbers. And, by the same calculus, anything that moved the numbers must be good.” A dangerous way to operate in something as essential as news and information.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...